Only Female in My Crew

April 28, 2009

Sunday’s Nicki Minaj post had me thinking about the career trajectories of femcees. How exactly do these bad girls get put on? What distinguishes someone like a Jean Grae from a Lil’ Kim, and why does one invariably find success over the other? As you would have it, the majority of hip-hop’s most successful female emcees have all followed the same career path, whether it be mere coincidence or standard industry procedure, climbing the ranks and falling into obscurity on nearly the same exactly time line. Coincidence? Methinks not.

Lil’ Kim once famously spit, “Only female in my crew, and I kick shit like a n**** do” on Bad Boy’s legendary posse cut “All About the Benjamins.” The same phrase could easily fit in the rhyme scheme of any other A-list rapstress, as one of the most common trends among female emcees is to come up backed by a group of guys. While there are a few exceptions to the rule, history speaks for itself: Lil’ Kim rolled with Junior M.A.F.I.A., Foxy Brown with The Firm, Trina with Slip ‘N Slide, Rah Digga with Outsidaz and Flipmode Squad, Eve with Ruff Ryders – the list goes on.

So why has every successful femcee gottent their feet wet in the rap game by being the only female in their respective male-dominated crew? It’s rare that each and every member of an all-male rap crew gets love for their individuality (Wu-Tang had Masta Killa, Onyx had Sonsee, Hieroglyphics have a whole smattering of no-names), and even rarer for them to succeed without a female presence (again, Wu-Tang is one of the few and proud). In an effort to stave of a potential sausage fest, male-centric rap groups often enlist the services of a single femcee to add a splash of diversity to the mix, usually taking form as an around-the-way chick who can hold their own on the mic – someone that won’t steal the focus from the alpha male while offering male fans something to ogle and female listeners someone to relate to.

Almost always does that single black female end up being one of, if not the most, successful member when it’s time to go solo (of course, it’s always behind the male leader’s sales mark). When Lil’ Kim spread her legs and flew, she ended up becoming one of the most groundbreaking and legendary female rappers of all time (never mind the fact that her face has been knifed more times than a virgin in a slasher flick), going over four times platinum with her respective releases. Same goes for Eve, who, behind DMX, sold the most units out of her crew (yes, that puts Jadakiss behind her), as well as Foxy Brown with Nas and Rah Digga with Busta Rhymes.

But in spite of all their immediate success at the onset of their solo career, each of these females have become victim to the same trappings of a male-dominated industry. Time and time again, femcees have gradually been pushed out of the spotlight, their male counterparts graced with healthy careers built on longevity while their pretty selves slowly dwindle into obscurity. Lil’ Kim, for example, has sold fewer units since she dropped Hardcore, barely reaching gold with her 2005 release The Naked Truth. Foxy has gone platinum, platinum, gold and wood with her four releases, while Rah Digga wasn’t even given the opportunity to put out the aptly titled Everything is a Story, the follow-up to her mediocre debut Dirty Harriet.

And what happens when listeners get tired of the femcee at hand? Female rappers do anything to dig their press-on nails into the game and hang on for dear life. Not to make an example of Lil’ Kim, but she’s done everything short of shoving her coochie in the lens of a pap’s camera to remain relevant (her current stint as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars is officially the nail in her rap coffin). Eve has gotten more and more doll-like, while Foxy and Remy Ma have acted a fool in public and gone to jail (assuming that they didn’t do this with the intention of getting locked up in the clink, but hey, erratic behavior has its consequences).

Nowadays, female rappers are altogether missing from the modern rap terrain, and it’s transparent why there’s not a single femcee standing among the fallen sisters. Audiences are almost always dazzled by any female rapper that’s stepped away from her all-male crew to record a solo effort. At first, listeners are enchanted by what she has to offer when she doesn’t have to prove that she can hang with the guys and can get downright nasty, almost as if she’s been waiting for the right moment to rap about her vagina. But after that, no one really seems to care. Old dogs can’t learn new tricks, and even if they try to move forward, it’s usually impossible to attempt something that hasn’t been previously done with the art form.

I’m quite aware of the fact that there’s a bevy of exceptions to the trend I’m detailing. Missy Elliott’s still around, right? Well, I wouldn’t jump the gun on bringing her name into the fold. Missy came in the game as one-fourth of Sista, tearing straight out of the gate as a solo artist when she dropped her classic debut Supa Dupa Fly. And over the course of her subsequent releases, Missy has only gotten better with time, her creativity and originality keeping her from dropping like the rest of the femcee flies. But even now, Misdemeanor is facing hard times. Where’s that next album? With her most recent singles failing to fare well, she siphoned herself off from society to come with the hardest, wackiest shit she can create. Not even an artist like Missy that sold millions without an army of men behind her is immune to failure, a sobering truth in an industry where dreams are consistently shattered.

And even so, the majority of women that have attempted to break without being the only chick in a cipher of dicks have only developed cult followings. For this, we shall look to the underground, a cesspool for talent but rarely with success. My personal favorite femcees reside in this lower tier, including Jean Grae, Psalm One, Eternia and so many more, capable of earning their position as some of the best emcees (read: not femcees) to ever grace the mic but rarely piquing the public’s interest enough to attain that status outside of a small circle of devoted fans.

Obviously, success as a female emcee doesn’t just come from being the only one in a crew with two X chromosomes, but after flipping over the issue again and again, I can’t help but come to that conclusion. So when I see someone like Nicki Minaj as the sole female member of Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment, I pity her for taking the career path that so many femcees have chosen and miserably failed at after being faced with immediate success. The trajectory is clear, and for someone who desires it as badly as she seems to want it, you can almost predict where she’s headed long before she gets there.

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